Rating (out of four stars): ★★★★
Authenticity is the quality that sets good art apart from great art. It’s the kind of art that makes you cry (more than once) and laugh through tears, even after a long day, and a long walk from the light rail stop.
With “Broke-ology,” a four-actor play by Nathan Louis Jackson and directed by Anthony Runfola, I can attest that The Black Theatre Troupe has achieved just that.
“Broke-ology” is the story of a tight-knit black family living in Kansas City at the beginning of the 21st century. Malcolm, the younger son (Christopher Dozier), has just returned to his childhood home in a poor neighborhood after completing a master’s degree at the University of Connecticut. Ennis, played by Raphael Hamilton, is the older brother stuck working a restaurant job and caring for their elderly father, William (Mike Traylor), who is suffering from multiple sclerosis. William begins experiencing visions of his long-deceased wife, Sonia (Melvina Jones), as his condition deteriorates.
The authenticity of the production lies in its simplicity. Its power does not stem from overdone effects or dramatic set changes (in fact, the entire play is set in the same living room and kitchen) but from the heartbreaking honesty with which the four cast members portray a family trapped by the effects of poverty and of age.
From the start, the tension between Malcom and Ennis is clear—while Malcolm is desperate to get out of the neighborhood and back to Connecticut, Ennis is angry about having to shoulder the responsibility of caring for William while providing for his girlfriend and a baby on the way. This generates the conflict that guides the plot.
Hamilton and Dozier have some memorable exchanges, both humorous (at one point, the 20-something brothers go on a “treasure hunt” and steal the neighbor’s garden gnome) and tension-filled. Hamilton, in particular, delivered one-liners with comic finesse, but didn’t allow the nuances of Ennis’ character to get lost in his humor.
Dozier did have some trouble with timing—on several occasions, he let the audience’s laughter drown out his lines. That could be a casualty of opening night. The brothers’ scenes were, in general, engaging both because of the authenticity of their exchanges and the way they let the conflict slowly escalate throughout the play as Jackson must have intended, until it reached a boiling point in the penultimate scene.
Traylor, though, was the reason I cried.
In the opening scene, Sonia greets William as he arrives home from his job as a mechanic. She is overjoyed at having just reproduced a collection of matching shirts for the parents and forthcoming newborn.
In the next scene, Sonia is dead, their two children are full-grown, and William is an ailing old man. What was truly striking was Traylor’s complete physical transformation from one scene to the next. He completely and authentically took on the physicality of the elder William.
Throughout the show, Traylor remained true to that authenticity. He was incredibly easy to empathize with, in every sense lovable and sincere. Melvina Jones, as Sonia, was a joy to behold. She added a much-needed lightness to the more tragic elements in the script.
The set, a simple living room/kitchen backdrop with a staircase and windows that suggested a domestic simplicity in the face of difficult circumstances. In a play so centered on human interaction, nothing more was needed.
While Jackson’s script is by no means elaborate, it’s anything but contrived. Most importantly, it provides a means for Dozier, Hamilton, Traylor and Jones to create an intimate, heartbreaking and heartwarming theater experience. I give “Broke-ology” four stars for that reason.
“Broke-ology” runs through Feb. 26 at The Black Theatre Troupe. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or online. The building is located near Washington and 14th streets, about a three-minute walk from the light rail stop at Jefferson and 12th streets (I called it a “long walk” earlier because I got lost, but that shouldn’t happen to a directionally sound person).
Contact the columnist at Faith.Anne.Miller@asu.edu.